Following the multi-platinum success of 1992’s Come On, Come On, Mary Chapin Carpenter released her fifth album, Stones In The Road in October 1994. Though it didn’t sell as well as its predecessor, it was quite successful at both retail and radio, racking up sales in excess of 2 million units and spawning Mary Chapin’s one and only #1 country hit, “Shut Up And Kiss Me.” It also added two more Grammys to her growing awards collection, one for Best Country Album and Best Female Country Vocal Performance for “Shut Up And Kiss Me.” Longtime collaborator John Jennings once again assumed co-production duties.
I’m at a loss to think of another album that balances commercial considerations with art as skillfully as this one. Just country enough to fall within the constraints of radio, the album also serves up a generous amount of folk. The opening track, the Celtic-tinged “Why Walk When You Can Fly?” is my favorite. Like all of the other songs on the album, it was written by Mary Chapin, and originally recorded by Joan Baez two years earlier. The melody reminds me of “Saw You Running”, written by Irish songwriter Thom Moore and recorded by Mary Black at approximately the same time that Stones In The Road was released. “Why Walk When You Can Fly?” was released as the album’s fourth and final single, signaling a growing willingness on the part of Mary Chapin and the Sony brass to push the boundaries at country radio. In retrospect, however, it may have been a misstep as the record stalled at #45 and none of Carpenter’s subsequent single releases performed particularly well on the charts.
After “Why Walk When You Can Fly?”, the album changes pace somewhat abruptly with “House of Cards”, a more radio-friendly tune that peaked at #21. This is a play-it-safe tune for Carpenter, similar in style to some of her earlier hits such as “The Hard Way” and “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her.” “House of Cards” is followed by the title track, a beautifully written tune in which Mary Chapin recalls her school days in the first verse, the Robert F. Kennedy assassination and the turbulence of the 1960s in the second, and the increasingly hectic pace of modern life in the third. The stones in the road start out as diamonds in the dust in the opening verse, but by the end of the song, Carpenter laments, they “leave a mark from whence they came.” Too heavy for radio, it comes as no surprise that “Stones In The Road” was not released as a single.
Another highlight is the mid-tempo “A Keeper For Every Flame,” which seems as though it should have been a candidate for single release. It is followed by another mid-tempo number, “Tender When I Want To Be”, which holds the dubious distinction of being the last Mary Chapin Carpenter single to ever reach the The Top 10, peaking at #6. Next up is the aforementioned “Shut Up And Kiss Me”, which despite being the biggest hit on this album, is actually one of my least favorite Mary Chapin Carpenter songs, at least as far as the big hits are concerned.
“The Last Word” is another one of my favorites, second only to “Why Walk When You Can Fly?” After this point, the album unfortunately becomes very ballad-heavy, more folk-oriented, and often borders on tedious. “Jubilee”, another Celtic-flavored number, is the only song after the seventh track, that I truly enjoyed. “John Doe No. 24”, tells the true story of a blind, deaf, and mute man who was found wandering the streets of Jacksonville, Illinois in 1945 and spent the next 48 years in state mental health institutions until his death in 1993. Though well written, it is possibly the most depressing song I have ever heard. Like most of the songs on the second half of the album, it drones on for way too long, clocking in at a whopping five minutes and 44 seconds.
As always, Mary Chapin’s songwriting is stellar, as is the production. There is nothing among these 13 tracks that can be said to be even close to traditional country, but the album still manages to appeal to country fans. It also won Mary Chapin a considerable number of new non-country fans. In addition to its double-platinum sales in the United States, it sold 100,000 units in Canada, earning platinum status there, and like Come On, Come On, it earned silver status in the United Kingdom, for sales excess of 60,000 units in that country. The album’s biggest flaw lies in its sequencing; the first half is enjoyable enough, but the overabundance of ballads (and long ones at that) in the second half caused me to lose interest in it. This is one of those albums that needs to be shuffle-played, in order to get a better mix of ballads and uptempo songs.
Stones In The Road is readily available on CD and in digital form from Amazon and iTunes.